Film Fund-amentals: The Summer Box Office Points

Summer movies don’t really exist any more. After all, the summer schedule actually started last November with the release of Avatar. So it’s really summer all year round, with enough tent pole movies to supply the world’s largest circus. Unfortunately, there are no tents, just tent poles.

Which may be the visual symbol for this coming summer. To be honest, many of these films are not exactly tent poles. They’re more like expensive wobbly sticks. With a few exceptions, most of the summer schedule looks like a cross between TV reruns and direct-to-video productions that missed the video store. The inspiration level is low, and if certain trends hold, the sense of quiet desperation should be obvious by July.

Oh sure, there are the usual titles that are virtually guaranteed to play big. Iron Man 2 is already considered a hit even before it opens in the States. With a $200 million-plus budget and enough advance buzz to drown out a Pink Floyd concert, the original metal head promises to surpass the $586 million box office of the first film. So for one brief moment, Hollywood’s out-of-control spending will look good.

While Iron Man 2 has an iron-clad grip on the summer (well, at least the first month), Robin Hood promises to be the first casualty. Opening right on the heavy heels of Iron Man 2 (not a smart move) and loaded with a $130 million-plus budget, the movie seems to be banking on the Tea Party movement for its audience. With luck, this continuation of Ridley Scott’s bizarre fixation with reinventing the costume epic may turn into another Gladiator. However, Scott’s last film, Kingdom of Heaven, may be the more realistic model. Besides, the folks at the Tea Party seem more partial to Netflix than theaters.

But the biggest casualty may prove to be Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. From some of the same people who did the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and based on a popular video game, Prince of Persia may discover that its $150 million (again, plus) would have been better spent on copies of the game. Just try to Google the title. The buzz on the game blows the movie away. Fortunately, when the film implodes, they can just blame it on the success of Iron Man 2.

Sex and the City 2 wants to be the chick flick of the summer. It could do OK if it’s stayed within the $65 million budget of the original film. Since I can’t find any figures for the budget, I’m guessing that it didn’t. Likewise, it has to navigate through the unique phenomenon of the 50 to 75 percent box office drop for sequels of female-focused movies. My completely uninformed hunch is that it won’t, and the producers will have to bank on a strong DVD release.

But the makers of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse have a vast army of teenage girls to depend upon. Despite the steady budget creep for this series (the current movie is costing around $70 million as opposed to the modest $37 million of the original), the love-struck ghouls of Washington still hold the rapt attention of this audience. Since teenage girls go back to movies repeatedly (unlike teenage boys), the dang thing will become a license to print money during the summer.

Rounding out the endless chain of sequels will be the strangely elusive appearance of 3D by way of Shrek Forever After and Toy Story 3. Maybe I’m just old and jaded, but in the past, sequels only went to 3D when they were worn out and desperate. Both of these films should do OK at the beginning, less OK a few weeks later, and then great sales for Christmas on DVD.

Which brings us to the summer’s two biggest retreads. Both The A-Team and The Karate Kid invoke the ancient philosophical question: Why? In the case of The A-Team, the filmmakers have devoted more than $165 million (and rising, thanks to various re-edits, re-shoots, and over-all tweaking) to celebrating a long-gone TV series that (and let’s cut the phony nostalgia) barely milked its way through 98 forgettable episodes. The movie promises lots of ludicrous action and ridiculous violence. The same was true of my old high school (which is why I don’t bother with the reunions). But after the opening weekend, I wouldn’t bank on this sucker.

As for The Karate Kid, it has to be noted that Jackie Chan has only clicked with the American audience when teamed up with either Owen Wilson or Chris Tucker. He has never been able to carry a film on his own in this country. I say this without malice. I actually like Jackie Chan. I saw his last movie (The Spy Next Door) at a second-run joint where I paid a $1.50. I only felt cheated out of 75 cents. That made me one of the happier customers at the screening.

This leaves only three major candidates as potential sleepers. The advance word on Knight and Day is very weak, and the online buzz is extremely mute. Most likely, it will do for the action flick what Valkyrie did for the historical thriller. It’s as if Tom Cruise was hell bent on proving that Sumner Redstone was right the first time.

I have a teenage son who is anxiously waiting to see The Last Airbender. That’s good. This is the first installment of a trilogy, and they are blowing more than $250 million on a set of movies that will most likely appeal to a limited teenage audience (though it should have a larger appeal to the Pacific crowd). Likewise, the first movie is being directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a director whose last several films have been major flops. It’s a gamble. It might even be a case of suicide. The DVD should do OK at Christmas.

The one true wild card will be Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Despite its budget of $200 million (-plus, like everything else), Inception has been treated as the greatest secret since the atomic bomb program. Likewise, Nolan has pulled off the difficult stunt of fashioning himself into the thinking man’s tent pole director (sort of a cross between Michael Bay and Ingmar Bergman). He is a strongly visual director who also knows how to deliver the action while simultaneously maintaining a high degree of intelligence. So anything is possible.